The Giving Spree
Some thoughts on charity
Happy Giving Tuesday! My $30 sale for an annual subscription is still live. This will unlock a lot of exclusive content in the archives, as well as whatever exclusive content I write in the next year. That’s a low price for a lot of content, so if you’re just a free subscriber for now, I hope you’ll consider taking advantage of it. This post is available for all subscribers, but if you choose to become a paid subscriber after reading it, I will be donating at least a portion of the proceeds to Tributaries of Hope, one of the two charities I highlight here. This Uganda-based orphanage is seriously struggling to make ends meet and needs all the support it can get. That’s my friend Paul pictured above with the children he serves. They don’t have donations set up right from their website, so if you’re moved to give more, feel free to drop something into this old GoFundMe or just reply to this newsletter if you want info for a fast, safe direct gift. I’m also doing some crowdfunding for a group of Dalit villagers in India, whose story you can read more about here. Thanks in advance for supporting me and supporting things I care about.
I got my feet seriously wet with international charity for the first time this year. My friend Jehu, an indigenous Indian missionary, had been struggling for a very long time to meet various community needs while providing for his own small family. He comes from the Dalit caste, the lowest caste in India, and he’s spent much of his adult life serving Dalits of all religions, from Hindu schoolchildren to Christian villagers exiled by their Hindu neighbors. The more I chatted with him, the more I thought his story could be turned into a Story, something a magazine with some significant readership might be interested in. After a few months of homework, I finally wrote that story for World magazine, and they decided it was worth putting on the front cover. For the print photo, a local photographer caught a beautiful image of children eagerly rushing to Jehu’s tutoring program, where a micro-staff gives them a square meal and supplements their mediocre public education. The kids are dressed in immaculate, crisp school uniforms, some of the only good clothes they own. Jehu is in the background, watching them proudly:
The response to this story was humbling. I started to get a slow trickle of interested donors, some who told me they didn’t have much and couldn’t give regularly, but they were touched, and they just wanted to give something. Meanwhile, I had personally invested a lot into a successful little crowd-fund for a borewell that provided clean water to a village full of exiled Christian families. Since that campaign went well, I launched a couple more with some further modest, attainable goals for people to aim at—solar lights for the villagers, a Christmas community outreach program, a projector Jehu could use for teaching and for pastors’ conferences. In a few months, we not only met these goals but helped Jehu start to build a small savings, so that for once he can enter a new year with something extra in the bank. Figuring out how to support his kind of work in India is a tricky dance, but we’ve been doing it, and real people have been benefiting.
Even so, with most of these donations being one-time gifts, the next steps will be very slow and challenging. There are so many things Jehu tells me he wants to do, things I have to tell him I’m not sure people can help him do next year, or any year. He tells me about a pastor who lives in a falling-down house, a very courageous and humble man who’s converted nearly his entire village to Christianity. In my article, I write about the subtler forms of persecution Christians like him suffer under Hindu nationalism, including the denial of access to government benefits like housing loans. To tear down and rebuild his house from the foundation up, Jehu translates from rupees and tells me it would cost about $35,000.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, that’s about what it would take to sustain the annual costs of an orphanage run by Paul, another Christian friend, currently feeding and educating dozens of orphan children who would otherwise be out on the streets. Paul was himself orphaned as a child, and now he is burdened for orphans in the same way Jehu is now burdened for Dalits in India. Like Jehu, he’s the real deal. But also like Jehu, he’s fallen through the cracks in Big Global Charity, struggling month to month on whatever he gets from the handful of generous people who are even aware his ministry exists. When the local government demanded the orphanage raise $16,000 for a perimeter fence, things looked grim. It’s not that the fence was a bad idea. Quite the opposite. They were vulnerable, and so was their food supply, which thieves could and did break in to steal. But there was no way they could raise that kind of money. As it is, they barely scrape together $1800 per month for the kids to eat three meals a day (with Paul himself typically going without). A GoFundMe just for the fence raised about $2,000, then just sat there, stagnating. Because who has $15,000 just lying around?
Indirectly, through my social media campaigning for Jehu’s work, I reconnected with an old acquaintance who did, as it happened, have $15,000 lying around, and out of the goodness of his heart chose to drop it on this one little orphanage. I now get regular updates from Paul in Facebook Messenger about the progress of the fence, pictures and bits of video. The orphanage has made a deal with their landlord that rent will be free for the next couple of years in exchange for the commitment this project. But meanwhile, the kids still need to be fed, and they still need gas in the bus tank. Medical bills still pop up. Plumbing emergencies still happen. I contribute little bits here and there as I’m able. Right now, I work less closely with Paul than I do with Jehu, but already I’m starting to think maybe I could write a story about him too next year, maybe I could help turn things around, slowly.
But how slowly! How slowly this goes, when it goes at all.
Recently, the young YouTube celebrity philanthropist “Mr. Beast” (real name Jimmy Donaldson) drew praise mixed with criticism when he traveled to Africa and drilled a hundred wells for communities in dire need across the continent. You may ask, what is there to criticize here? Oh, all kinds of things. He was too white, too click-baity, too independent, too…something-something. It was like the disgruntled do-gooder version of the disgruntled journalist’s meme: “I’ve been working for months on this take, and he…he just went and tweeted it out.”
Donaldson himself cuts an oddly poignant figure. A few years younger than me, he’s already a multi-millionaire. This documentary about his origin story is fascinating. We meet him as an awkward adolescent, fatherless, painfully shy, probably on the autism spectrum. Through his teens, he teams up with a buddy to create off-beat, elaborate stunt videos for YouTube. After years of grinding away, trying to game the algorithm, he finally begins notching viral hits. In one early video, he films himself counting to 10,000, which took around 24 hours. For reasons unknown, millions of people watched this pointless exercise, just because it was so weird. It would set the tone for future pointless but weirdly fascinating stunts.
But Donaldson didn’t just want to go viral. He wanted to turn all this strange, viral energy into something that could actually help people. So when his first $10,000 ad check arrived, he decided, true to form, to do something weird with it: He made a video of himself giving it away to a homeless guy.
This was the first of many similar videos where as quickly as ad revenue flowed in, Donaldson would turn around and spend it on increasingly more polished charity content. In one video, more thoughtfully conceived than giving one giant check to a homeless guy, he surprises a dozen plus pizza delivery drivers with large tips. Some of them break down in tears. One comes back to say the money allowed him to take time off. Hugs are exchanged. Donaldson grins wide, knowing he’s cracked some secret code on a scale he is just starting to understand.
Donaldson would go on to create an entire separate YouTube channel solely devoted to his philanthropy content, where 100% of the revenue was plowed back into local charity. In one video, his team enlists a small army of fans to buy out an entire store, then give all the stock to food banks and shelters. In another, they open a free burger joint for a day, and the line of cars grows so long that Donaldson and friends give up on cooking enough food and just start handing out iPads, video game consoles, wads of cash.
Eventually, in partnership with other philanthropists, Donaldson accumulated enough capital and brand clout to launch a whole chain of food banks across the country. He also teamed up with medical professionals to sponsor things like a thousand cataract surgeries all in one go. At the same time, he built a YouTube empire on ever stranger, bigger, and more expensive stunts. Some of them organize dozens of people into reality TV-like competitions where everyone walks away with a cash prize. Some feature just Donaldson and his friends, plus whatever celebrity guest they’ve booked for the day. One running theme is a “$1 versus $100000….” gimmick where they compare insanely cheap and insanely expensive versions of the same thing—a boat, a house, a vacation, a job. The cheap parts are always more charming, evoking those early days of the channel when it was just Donaldson and a couple buddies doing random silly stuff on a shoestring budget. As they scale up, then scale up again, then scale up again, it feels like something is draining away, some spark is being lost.
That sense of lost innocence manifested in an especially grotesque way earlier this year when Donaldson’s long-time collaborator announced he was “trans” and abandoned his family. Grounded in nothing more substantive than be nice-ism, Donaldson toed the leftist line and tweeted predictable nothings about “transphobia.” Meanwhile, there have been other reports that all isn’t fun and games behind the Mr. Beast curtain, including claims that Donaldson has verbally abused his employees. One journalist, taking issue with his whole brand, harshly accuses him of “only being a good person for views.”
And still, as the cash has kept flowing, Donaldson has kept giving it away, on local, national and international scales. In the “100 wells” video, he flashes the same goofy grin he had when he was a teenager handing out $300 dollar pizza tips, as if he still can’t quite believe he’s cracked the almighty Algorithm.
I couldn’t tell you what’s going on in Jimmy Donaldson’s soul. I couldn’t say if his benevolent empire will continue to grow, or abruptly come tumbling down like a house of cards. “Money is the world’s curse!” declares Perchik the charming young communist in Fiddler On the Roof. Tevye the poor milkman jabs back, “May the Lord smite me with it, and may I never recover!” Perhaps one could say Jimmy Donaldson has been smitten with money. Whether he will recover remains to be seen.
But personally, I can’t find it in myself to begrudge him his bizarre success, for all that so many of his stunts feel pointless, and for all that the whole Mr. Beast experiment seems to be channeling one man’s oddly sad compulsive-addictive energy. I can sympathize. If I had that much money, maybe I would become addicted to giving it away too.
Of course, I don’t have anything close to a tenth of Mr. Beast’s net worth, and I never will. I have accepted that I will go through life seeing numerous people I can’t help, needs I can’t meet, pain I can’t heal. I will tell myself that the healing of pain involves a great deal more than money, and this will be true, but it is also true that money can help, sometimes. On Twitter, I follow a melancholy soul calling himself the “Good Tweet Man,” who solicits and retweets people’s prayer requests. These don’t always involve money, but often they do, sometimes in the form of tiny little crowdfunding campaigns that would fall hopelessly short of their goal had the Good Tweet Man not given them a boost. The Good Tweet Man, like me, is not independently wealthy himself, but he acts as a conduit for his followers’ aggregated generosity. And, also like me, he is sometimes prone to despair at the sadness of it all.
I confess, I may be a good card-carrying capitalist, but I sometimes feel a righteously indignant twinge when I see how much money some rich people flush away. I think, “For this much you could have fed thirty orphans for three years. For that much you could have helped a village finish building a church and supplied them with latrines. For a tiny fraction of that much, you could have given this poor family’s mom a decent funeral, you could have helped that guy get back on his feet, you could have…”
But then I come back to my good capitalist senses, and I remember it’s only because of the good kind of Rich People that so much of the world keeps spinning around. And it’s not wrong that you have to be thoughtful and strategic in planning how to ask Rich People to give money for your Thing, whatever that Thing is, because Rich People are asked to give money to an awful lot of Things, some of which will offer a more obvious return on investment than others. And when good ministries wither and die, as so many inevitably do, it’s usually nobody’s fault, really. It’s just a sad, sad world.
But as cliché as it sounds, small gains do give me hope. Recently, I was sent a video from the villagers in India, thanking Jehu and me and our donors for supplying them with solar lights. They talk about how they had been gathering to pray and worship in darkness, but now they’ve set up one of the streetlights in their building. At the end, they turn the camera to show that “this light is shining well.”
It is shining well, indeed.